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Rufus Wainwright on his unique audio autobiography "Road Trip Elegies"


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Michael Hill: The Grammy awards are coming up this month -- those of course are the record industry's highest honors for a wide variety of musical styles plus other audio achievements.

But there's no category for music and dialogue on online audio services...which brings us to a recent release by a musician - Rufus Wainwright -- who has found a unique way to tell the story -- or at least a story --of his life.

NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Tom Casciato has more.

Rufus Wainwright (sings): Sometimes I feel like my brain turns to leaves.

Tom Casciato: Rufus Wainwright's most recent album is called "Unfollow The Rules."

Rufus Wainwright (sings): Unfollow the rules ...

Tom Casciato: And he's always ready to do just that. Listen to him disrupt this fluid melody with a single note.

(discordant piano note)

Tom Casciato: This is the artist, after all, who earned his first Grammy nomination 12 years ago recreating a famed 1961 performance by Judy Garland. Now he's unfollowed the rules again with a unique audio autobiography called "Road Trip Elegies."

Rufus Wainwright (sings): There's no business like show business like no business I know.

Tom Casciato: It combines performance with conversations held on an almost 400-mile car trip from his hometown of Montreal all the way to New York City … conversations with his therapist.

Rufus Wainwright: I just had this vision all of a sudden creating like a kind of podcast type situation, but involving both my therapy sessions and song.

Tom Casciato: And of course it being therapy, there's a lot about his parents.
Rufus's mother, Kate McGarrigle, was an accomplished performer who joined her sister Anna to become one of Canada's great singer/songwriter duos.

Kate McGarrigle (singing): Some say a heart is just like a wheel / When you bend it you can't mend it.

Tom Casciato: His father, Loudon Wainwright III is another noted singer/songwriter -- known to sing a song or two about fathers and sons.

Loudon Wainwright III (singing): When I was your age I thought I hated my dad and that the feeling was a mutual one that we had / We fought each other day and night ...

Rufus Wainwright: Both my parents were very successful in their field and I was made aware of that and really participated in that from a very young age. And I always have embraced this family tradition.

Rufus Wainwright (singing): That pass examination did so well for me that now I am the ruler of the Queen's navy.

Tom Casciato: Have you always embraced it? Because there was a point in the story where you say that your Aunt Anna ...

Rufus Wainwright: Yes.

Tom Casciato: ... tells you that almost that you have to embrace it.

Rufus Wainwright: Yes, yes, well yes. I've always embraced it, I think probably 90 percent (laughs). My mother sadly passed away about ten years ago. And interestingly enough -- and this connects to therapy -- is that it was once she died, I actually realized that there were moments that I was quite angry for having been pushed into this profession.

Tom Casciato: It was through his mother Kate's and his mutual love of opera Rufus says, that they always connected. With his father, it was Broadway shows.

Rufus Wainwright (on stage): When I was 6 or 7 I saw Annie on Broadway, and I was utterly transfixed. And I immediately told my mother that I wanted to be Annie. And my mom, who didn't miss a beat, immediately told me that in fact there were certain productions in nether regions of Canada where they do Annie with all boys. And she said when one of these auditions come up, you know, we'll go and you could play Annie. None of that existed. (audience laughter) That was completely false.

Tom Casciato: All these years later, what does that tell you about your mother?

Rufus Wainwright: My mom was incredibly intent, and really put all of her energy into training her children -- both my sister and I, my sister Martha. Training to be on the stage. I mean -- and she wasn't -- and I don't mean that she was a stage mother because that's very different. It wasn't about, like, pushing us. Like she didn't want us to do commercials. She didn't want to put us on TV or anything. But she wanted us to really know music intimately and really be masters of our craft.

Rufus Wainwright (on stage): So I'm now going to do a song from Annie.

Rufus Wainwright (singing): Maybe far away ...

Tom Casciato: Rufus's relationship with his mother was complicated. as "Road Trip Elegies" tells it, Kate was less than enthusiastic upon learning of her son's sexual identity.

Rufus Wainwright (from "Road Trip Elegies"): One day my mom discovered some dirty magazines (laughs) under my bed -- classic story. And I got home, and she was sitting in the living room. She had a Scotch in one hand and a cigarette in the other, and I sat down, and all she said to me was "Rufus, don't tell me something I don't want to hear."

Rufus Wainwright: It was not an ideal situation with both my parents, actually. But, I mean, I spent more -- most time with my mother. She wasn't a religious person necessarily, but she had been brought up by nuns and stuff, so I think that kind of happened. Also, I came out very young. I was only 13 when I started to really know what was going on. And that was a very scary time, you know, with AIDS. And so I think she was there was a lot of fear there. Yeah, yeah. She wasn't -- she wasn't great about that. But but we came to terms eventually.

Tom Casciato: Some 24 years later, it would be no coincidence, he says, that he would write his first opera about a diva losing her voice right as his mother was losing her life to cancer. An avid cross-country skier, Kate McGarrigle drew the image that would mark the front of her gravestone. Rufus designed the back.

Rufus Wainwright (from "Road Trip Elegies"): I did a drawing for her that was like a banjo on the ocean. And then these are some of her lyrics:

Let the sun set on the ocean
I will watch it from the shore
Let the sun rise over the redwoods
I'll rise with it till I rise no more

And that's from a song she wrote called "Mendocino." And so I put my little illustration on the back.

Rufus Wainwright (singing): I bid farewell to the state of old New York ...

Tom Casciato: There's much more to "Road Trip Elegies": more music, plus tales of boarding school, his complex relationship with his father, support he received from songwriting master Leonard Cohen, even a therapeutic breakthrough of sorts involving his paternal grandmother, whom he credits as his greatest supporter when he was young. And while they may not give out awards for projects as hard to categorize as "Road Trip Elegies" … they do for albums like "Unfollow The Rules."

Rufus Wainwright: And I will say my recent Grammy nominated album "Unfollow The Rules" (laughs).

Tom Casciato: The record is up for a 2021 Grammy Award for Best Traditional Pop Album. One of its rivals? Renee Zellweger doing the songs from her biopic of Judy Garland.

Tom Casciato: You're up against a Judy Garland album, Renee Zellwegger's album. And you invented doing Judy Garland, while not --

Rufus Wainwright: And actually my Judy record was nominated for the very same category many years ago. And you look, I adore -- I'm quite good friends with Rene and I thought her job on the movie was fantastic. You know, well we'll keep it there. Whoever wins is great. May the best Judy win (laughs).

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